I worked in the UK public sector for over 30 years before moving to France and becoming a coach. As a coach, I now work across different sectors and organizations like the United Nations. What is interesting to me as I take a long look back at my career, is that workplace productivity principles — communication, collaboration, good leadership - generally apply to all organizations; large or small, for-profit or not-for-profit.
This belief has been further reinforced during my time as a coach for various UN programmes, particularly for mid-level managers on the UN System Staff College’s UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning (UNEL-e) programme. These mid-level managers have given me a glimpse into this giant, global and diverse organization. Every encounter with them, and other colleagues throughout the UN system, has reminded me of the similarities that exist between my public sector background, international organizations, NGOs, academia and the private sector.
1. The value of a good leader
Despite having a common purpose to do good, there are huge differences in how people experience work because of where they are, and more importantly, who their manager is. Good leaders have the ability to drive outcomes by showing a genuine concern for their staff and the work that they deliver on. They also have a unique ability to build relationships that are rooted in transparency, trust, and open communication. This is why I believe developing the leadership skills of mid-level and senior leaders is so important. Moving around the various UK Ministries, I realized that a good manager affected not only work efficiency but the culture and wellbeing of everyone around them. Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes their job, the relationship between a manager and an employee is critical. Employees who can thrive in environments created by their managers often deliver excellent results.
2. The value of a common vision
Apart from the Foreign Office, most UK civil service roles are safe. I encountered far more people in the UN whose lives were at risk, and I wondered how they had the mental capacity to work on their own development.
One skill that the UNEL-e focuses on is the ability to articulate a shared vision. When you have so many different countries, people and circumstances, the only way to create the feeling of ONE organization is to have leaders who understand the overall purpose and are able to share it with others. Every day, it is important that people working for you know why they do what they do, and that their contribution is valuable.
3. The value of clear, positive communication
The more people and locations there are, the better communications need to be. I remember being in the Department of Social Security, one of the largest departments in the UK public sector. A lot of time was spent on getting the key messages right and making sure leaders understood them and passed them on effectively. But it is not just the right words. It is about embodying a positive attitude.
A brief foray into the social media sphere shows us how damaging cynicism and negativity can be to the cohesion of a group of people. I always enjoyed being in a team with people who made work pleasant. Emotions spread and we all know people who come into work and moan about everything. Everything becomes harder than it needs to be. It’s not about blind optimism, it is about making the best of things and binding people together.
4. Promotion isn’t the only measure of development
Looking back, I learned a lot from my sideways moves and my friend Fabiana (also a coach for the UN) told me how she had even taken a step back in order to realign herself with who she was. Sometimes, we find ourselves in roles that don't suit us. In these situations, we must do whatever it takes to change that and move on, even if we have to sacrifice something. One advantage of a course like UNEL-e is that it gives you the time and space to reflect on what it is you really want. It also gives you perspective on whether you are heading in the right direction or not. I went on a similar course when I was approaching 40. That time away from work was invaluable. Within a year, I had left my comfortable role and gone in a completely new direction. As we progress, we need to remember that titles are not the only measure of career development. Sometimes you need to centre your focus on personal growth. By looking into things like learning, mentorship, and executive coaching, you can grow your career and explore new roles in our constantly shifting workplaces.
5. As employees, we also have responsibilities (not just rights)
It was only when I began to work for myself that I realized that I was responsible for me. Think about that for a minute because you are responsible for you, no-one else is. I also realized that this had always been true. It was not for my employer to promote me; it was for me to work out why I didn’t get through promotion boards and find someone to help.
Good employers offer career paths and training, of course, but we don’t have a ‘right’ to a career or advancement. As an employee, I knew of my ‘right’ to have so many hours training each year. I thought that it was their responsibility to train me.
Since I stopped being employed, I have spent over €40,000 on my own development, sometimes painfully as I had little income. Of course, it would have been much easier to develop when I was earning, but I didn’t see it as my responsibility. I wish I had known then the importance of investing in me and the value of training courses I was lucky enough to be sent on by my employer. I would have been more present! I encourage all to remember their responsibility to learn. Learning is important. It breeds creativity and offers you the opportunity to become an independent thinker who has the skills and capabilities to change your career trajectory.
6. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes
Our view of leaders depends on who we saw as we were growing up. When I went into an office in 1976, it reflected the outside world. Most leaders were male, despite the majority of the workforce being female. Management was about being strong, telling people what to do and knowing all of the answers (or pretending to, I realized). There was no thought of getting the best out of people, only the most, and little thought for their welfare so I decided that leaders didn't look like me. I need to mention here that there were some wonderful men who stood out and were not like that, plus gradually I had more female role models. It was only after I had left employment that I came across this quote:
‘Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.’
John C Maxwell
He described a leader as someone who was there to serve, not to be served. Their role was to develop people and to remove obstacles in their path. They do not know everything and are both comfortable and honest about it. They solve problems and make plans by collaborating with their teams.
Wow! What a difference this perspective made. I decided to try it out. If a leader 'served' then I could do that. It wasn't arrogant to put up my hand and offer to lead. It was because I thought I could add value and it came with hard work not prestige. Surprisingly, when I volunteered, I was given the jobs! As we often say on the UNEL-e programme, it is important for all of us to “lead from where we sit”. Take initiative and watch how you gradually gain recognition.
7. Daily work is growth
If I had taken responsibility for my career, and life, I would have progressed sooner. I should have understood that I had to be INTENTIONAL to grow. What does that mean? It is easy (comfortable) to come into work every day and repeat the one before. But development requires changing what you do, step by step, and in order to begin you must decide to do it. Be intentional!
I hope that my words have resonated with some of you out there. It is my purpose to create awareness for people and see untold possibilities in them. I hope that through these seven workplace lessons, I have unlocked some possibilities for you today.
There is much to learn about how we can all become visionary UN leaders, who are intentional about their leadership development journey, and emulating the values outlined in the UN System Leadership Framework. Getting here often entails self-reflection, information sharing, and exchange of ideas with fellow UN leaders. If you are interested in sharpening your skills and developing professionally , I invite you to look no further than the 2022 edition of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning Programme (19 October-1 December, 2022). Should you wish to see the testimonials of our alumni please have a look at the trailers and testimonials here, the graduation speeches from the last cohort here, read spotlight interviews here or search for #UNELE2020, #UNELE2021, #UNELE2022, #UNELEeca across social media.